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Op-Ed: Helping Poor Nations Lifts All Boats

By Edmund Cain

This op-ed originally appeared in the Aug. 23, 2001, issue of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Imagine if all the children in North America and Europe between 6 and 14 years of age were not attending school.

The equivalent number - 125 million, two thirds of them girls - do not attend school in the developing world. This grim reality is just one manifestation of poverty in our world today.

Global poverty impacts the lives of people in rich countries in many ways. That is why the most powerful and affluent nations are concerned. They recognize not only the moral imperative to do something to reduce poverty, but that it is also in their self-interest to do so. Though the United States faces significant challenges stemming from poverty within its own borders, these pale in comparison to the abject poverty suffered by
1.2 billion people who eke out an existence on less than one dollar a day.

Poverty is a contributing cause of conflict, which often results in government instability or state failures. Failed states are the breeding grounds for drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, the spread of infectious disease, uncontrolled environmental degradation, mass refugee flows, and illegal immigration. Around the world, we are seeing an increase in the number of unstable and failing states. Unless we get serious about dealing with poverty, it is inevitable that we will see more conflict.

More Resources Are Needed

Global poverty was the central issue at a recent summit meeting of the worlds most powerful nations, otherwise known as the Group of 8. Was the G-8 up to the task? Not quite. Once again, the poverty agenda received another heavy helping of rhetoric, but remains starved of resources. Absent from the lofty declarations of these international meetings are the urgent initiatives necessary for generating the resources needed to attack poverty in a serious and meaningful way. Such initiatives start with developing countries doing more to help themselves by coming up with their own national strategies to expand economic opportunities. However, this must be complemented by rich countries offering more meaningful debt relief, more favorable terms of trade, more investment, and more development assistance.

Americans became justifiably cynical when they learned how much of their past aid was used to buy political allegiance from countries during the Cold War regardless of how corrupt or tyrannical the regime. Many countries still suffer the legacy of these regimes through enormous debt burdens. However, it is time for Americans and their political leaders to take another look and reconsider the strategic role aid can now play in those countries that are committed to using it well to fight poverty and deepen democracy.

A Time of Great Promise

Today's development environment - emphasizing poverty reduction, market economies, participatory democracy and clean government - has never held out more promise for producing positive results. Developing countries are no longer treated as pieces in a global chess match between competing ideological models.

International organizations have undergone reforms that have made them more efficient and effective partners in the development process. Taking a page from the private sector and focusing on bottom line results, the international community has established a set of seven timebound, quantifiable, and monitorable international development goals, the capstone of which is to halve the number of people living on a dollar per day by 2015.

For our part as Americans, we need to reexamine our role in promoting international development and poverty reduction.

US Lags in Giving

Despite the incontrovertible evidence that global prosperity depends on expanding democratic freedoms and economic opportunities, that poverty is a root cause of conflict and all its attendant ills; and that never before has the world enjoyed a more enabling environment for reducing poverty, U.S. official development assistance has paradoxically shrunk rather than expanded. In the 1960s, the United States provided 0.6 percent of its national income for development assistance. This proportion is now less than 0.1 percent. Given the large share of our aid that goes to Israel and Egypt, the world's poorest countries receive only 0.02 percent of U.S. income. The United States gives the lowest share of its national income of 22 donor countries.

In addition to raising its inadequate aid levels, the international community must increase debt relief. Many poor countries where The Carter Center works, like Guyana and Mali, will receive some debt relief under the international community's debt-relief initiative, but will still spend more on remaining debt obligations than on health and education combined. In an almost cynical game of bait and switch, countries like Mozambique have seen the benefits of debt relief cancelled out by corresponding reductions in aid, resulting in no net gain for social development activities in the national budget.

Open Markets to More Trade

While we encourage developing countries to embrace free trade and open markets as a strategy for economic growth, we have erected barriers preventing their goods from reaching our markets. If such barriers were removed, the extra exports would account for a mere .1 percent of total imports to the rich nations. On the other hand, it has been estimated that if these barriers were lifted by the European Union and North America, the least developed countries would receive an additional $2.5 billion in export earnings.

The G-8 Summit is progress only in that there continues to be at least a rhetorical commitment to reducing poverty and all of its ill effects. What is needed now is a commitment to providing the means to achieve these goals. The World Trade Organization meeting this fall offers an opportunity to improve conditions of trade for developing countries, and the UN Financing for Development Conference next March will provide the opportunity to address other resourcing needs.

Unless these goals are underwritten by the necessary resources to achieve them, this generation of children in the developing world will remain uneducated and the vicious cycle of poverty will continue with these and other negative effects on the global community.

Edmund Cain, who served in a number of senior positions in the United Nations, is director of The Carter Center's Global Development Initiative.

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